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Students vs. sanctions --Christians, Muslims work together to stop Iraqi genocide

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    Students vs. sanctions --Christians, Muslims work together to stop Iraqi genocide

    Carol Lowes
    ``My family and I were in Iraq at the end of the Gulf War when thousands of Iraqis revolted against Saddam Hussein's regime,'' recalls Wigdan Al-Sukhni, a 20-year-old woman studying sciences at the University of Toronto.

    ``He put down those revolts brutally using air attacks. We moved from house to house trying to escape them. After the bombing stopped, he sent soldiers to round up anyone who might have participated in the revolts.

    ``So, I think it's ludicrous that the United Nations Security Council claims that the economic sanctions punish Saddam Hussein. He's renovating his palace and celebrating his birthday while Iraqis starve.''

    Al-Sukhni is among a new generation of Canadians protesting trade sanctions the Security Council placed on Iraq after the Gulf War. As the founder and president of the university's Students Against Human Rights Violations, she says her Muslim faith is her ``biggest motivation to promote peace and give a voice to the voiceless'' through human rights advocacy.

    Like Al-Sukhni, Inter-Church Action director Dale Hildebrand argues the sanctions constitute genocide in Iraq. For nearly a decade, several of the Roman Catholic and Protestant groups that make up Inter-Church Action have urged Canadian officials to call for the sanctions removal.

    Now ICA and the Canadian Islamic Congress - two of Canada's largest religious bodies to oppose the sanctions - have joined a new national network aimed at achieving the sanctions ``immediate and unconditional removal.'' Yet, these groups hold different world views based on different theology and mixing that with foreign affairs could be said to have started wars.

    The Canadian Network to End Sanctions on Iraq was founded in August, 2000. Spearheaded by the Montreal-based human rights group Voices of Conscience, the network was formed to encourage groups across Canada to collectively plan vigils, hunger strikes and marches. However, its members do not agree on whether both military and economic sanctions should be lifted. This is not an obstacle to Canadian Islamic Congress' and Inter-Church Actions' co-operation.

    ``We're very comfortable working with them (Inter-Church Action) on this because it's a moral issue we see the same way; genocide is happening in Iraq,'' says Wahida Valiante, Canadian Islamic Congress' national vice-chair. ``Conscience, justice and fairness are common themes in both religions and they are at stake.''

    The Islamic and inter-church groups are the Toronto links currently on the network's chain. It has members in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax.

    ``We launched the network because we saw the need to pull minority groups together across religious, racial and ideological lines,'' says Marc Azar, the network's co-ordinator.

    ``Efforts were fragmented. We hope our members will bring each other in at the planning phase so anti-sanction events happen across Canada simultaneously.''

    The Canadian Islamic Congress and Inter-Church Action have lobbied the Canadian government independently for several years. Only during the past few months have they agreed that they could work together to raise public awareness. Recent events suggest that they're ready to start.

    On Remembrance Day, members of both groups attended a speech at U of T given by Denis Halliday. After a 30-year career with the U.N., Halliday quit as the agency's humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq to protest the sanctions. After his resignation in 1998, he began touring the world, calling for their removal. He believes all sanctions on Iraq should be lifted and the U.N. should open dialogue with Iraq.

    ``If the churches don't stand up and address human rights issues in their own country and overseas they should take a serious look at why they exist,'' says Halliday.

    ``I am a Quaker, meaning I was brought up with the view that `you have to try to make a difference.' It's why I joined the U.N. and it's part of what keeps me going. I can't walk away from innocent people who are suffering.''

    Religious communities are not always perceived as beacons of human rights advocacy because the histories of most include human rights violations. Some might even argue that religion can be used as a guise for intolerance. Mistrust is the challenge confronting Mona Ahmad as she organizes a march for the Greater Toronto Area Muslim Students Association scheduled for Feb. 24. The march is to end with a rally in front of Toronto city hall.

    ``Our main goal is to make sure that the march is not viewed as a Muslim-only event,'' says Ahmad. ``The sanctions are a human rights issue so we struggle with the fact Muslim Students' Association is religious but wants to attract the support of non-religious people opposed to the same things.''

    Ahmad says she is concerned that some Canadians ``treat the situation as if every Iraqi is Saddam Hussein.'' Her comments hint at the fact that religion is far from a benign factor in recent American-Iraqi history. Some Iraqi-Canadians have not forgotten the American military's use of Christian rhetoric during the war.

    ``I was horrified during the Gulf War to see U.S. planes with the words `Corpus Christi' on them bombing the country I was from,'' says Toronto resident Ibrahim Lal-Hariri. ``I still want to know how the Pentagon could use our prophet Jesus' name when killing Iraqis. Muslims believe Christ is holy and there are Muslims and Christians living in Iraq.''

    Christian groups, such as the Mennonite Central Relief Committee and World Vision Canada, have also denounced what Lal-Hariri calls the ``demonization of the Iraqi people.'' They, too, argue that Iraqis are victims of Hussein's dictatorship and should not be seen as party to the attack on Kuwait. Christian and Muslim groups may agree that Iraqis are the victims of the international sanctions and their own government. It is how they see each other that will be crucial to whether they can co-operate in taking their message to the streets.


    Carol Lowes is a news and features writer for Faith Today magazine.

    "Indeed whosoever purifies himself shall achieve success, and remembers (glorifies) the name of his Lord and prays"
    Quran 87:14-15
    22.1 . O mankind! Fear your Lord . Lo! the earthquake of the Hour ( of Doom ) is a tremendous thing .